'One kid at a time': Cadet STEM Club is committed to community

Janae Passalaqna, far left, a teacher at East High School in Pueblo, Colo., and Betty Lee, far right, a retired teacher, listen in as Cadets 3rd Class Casey Evans and Warren Metcalf explain the specifics of 3D printing at the Public Broadcasting Service at Colorado State University – Pueblo, Oct. 24, 2014. The cadets helped Passalaqna and Lee host Homework Hotline, which allows school-aged children to call in with homework-related questions. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Rachel Hammes)

Janae Passalaqna, far left, a teacher at East High School in Pueblo, Colo., and Betty Lee, far right, a retired teacher, listen in as Cadets 3rd Class Casey Evans and Warren Metcalf explain the specifics of 3D printing at the Public Broadcasting Service at Colorado State University – Pueblo, Oct. 24, 2014. The cadets helped Passalaqna and Lee host Homework Hotline, which allows school-aged children to call in with homework-related questions. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Rachel Hammes)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Nine hundred forty six hours. In the life of a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet that time could be spent studying, on the athletic fields or catching up on sleep.

But for 470 cadets in the Cadet STEM Club - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - it's the amount of time they spend annually at area schools, science fairs and robotics competitions.

The largest club at the Academy, STEM is also the most active, donating volunteer hours to inspire elementary-, middle- and high-school students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It's given cadets an appreciation for their own professors here, as well as a love of learning that will carry them through their Air Force careers, said Cadet 3rd Class Sean McCarty.

"Teaching is hard," said McCarty, who joined STEM as freshman. "The all-day events at the schools are draining. It's tough to keep kids' attention for long - you're constantly working at it."

While McCarty is majoring in civil engineering, a STEM field, club president Kaitlyn Sanborn is not. She's a political science major.

"I went to the STEM Club table as a freshman," she said. "I love kids and I love teaching them. It seemed like a good fit."

That's where the Academy curriculum comes in handy, Sanborn said. While she's not majoring in a science or mathematics field, she has enough background from the core curriculum, with its emphasis on math and science, to teach kids about electrical engineering, civil engineering, robotics, aeronautics and space.

"When I got involved, I had no idea what STEM even was," he said. "I learned a lot about the uses for all that math and science," she said. "While I'm passionate about political science, I think anything that gets kids excited about school is a great idea. If we can get them to take education seriously, why not try?"

The STEM Club cadets don't get extra credit or special recognition for joining the club. Their membership does count toward leadership and community involvement, both encouraged in the Cadet Wing but not required. This semester, the STEM Club tallied the largest number of volunteer hours of any cadet club.

"There are a lot of things you can do to make a difference," Sanborn said. "You can clean up a trail or pick up trash somewhere, but in a couple of weeks, that job is going to be done again. With STEM Outreach, you're making a difference, one kid at a time. You're making a lasting impression."

The STEM Club relies heavily on volunteer faculty and staff. Departments from astronautics to engineering provide material and support. The club has grown so large it has two officers leading it - Capt. Monica Pickenpaugh of the Civil Engineering department and Capt. Jason Christopher of the Mechanical Engineering department.

"Really, the cadets run the club," Pickenpaugh said. "We just provide logistical support - getting them to places, getting approval to get out of class, that kind of thing."
Leading STEM takes up much of the officer's spare time. The two drive cadets once a month to Pueblo to appear on the Homework Hotline, a call-in show that helps kids with homework and allows cadets to show off their STEM demonstrations to the audience at home.

While it's an extra duty for both instructors, it's worthwhile.

"It gives cadets a chance to have different opportunities, to change the way students see the world," Pickenpaugh said. "It's a way to show kids that science isn't just for nerds in lab coats and glasses, but is relevant, important and exciting."

This semester, the club judged science fairs and robotics competitions, attended all-day festivals like STEM Rocks or the What If? Festival and visited schools. Visiting schools is Cadet 2nd Class Forrest Schaeffer's favorite event.

"You get the kids for the whole day and they get to see everything," he said. "They're excited by the end of the day. And it makes you proud to be an Academy cadet when you see the kids' reaction to your uniform."

Sanborn agreed.

"Sometimes, the Academy is challenging and draining," she said. "But when you're at a school, these kids' eyes just light up - you're not that much older than they are, and you're in a military uniform. They are so excited."

The STEM Club stands out because of its academic reach, commitment to the community and because it falls in line with the Academy's overall mission of developing leaders, Christopher said.

"It has a huge community service impact," he said. "It's all part of our mission-related obligation to educate, train and inspire. These cadets do that every time they visit a school."

For Sanborn, the Cadet STEM Club is a way to serve her community before she graduates.

"That's why we're all here - to serve the nation," she said. "And this is service and it's important for the future."